Friday, April 03, 2020
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Listening to the opinions of ex-professionals is an inescapable aspect of sports coverage. They’re there to give you the inside track and tell you what it’s like to be in the athlete’s shoes. Their contribution can be incredibly insightful such as Michael Johnson’s work for the BBC during the Olympics and Nasser Hussain’s analysis of the cricket. At other times, and in one sport in particular, what they bring to the table is of less value.                                  

        

 

Football coverage is littered with ex-pros. Not only are they studio pundits, but they’re pitch side analysts, interviewers and even commentators. The employment opportunities for retired footballers are seemingly endless. So long as reference can be made to a certain number of appearances, goals or caps then there’s a job for life.  

 

It’s a bye-product of the media milking the sport for all it’s worth. Setanta’s coverage of a 5.30pm kick-off starts at 4pm. How do they fill the time? Well, they struggle. With the departure of Les Ferdinand and Tim Sherwood, only the surprisingly eloquent Steve McManaman and the unsurprisingly thick Ray Parlour are left. Perhaps they will spare Paul Parker the indignity of scampering around on the touchline at Blue Square Premier matches and draft him in. God forbid, Steve Claridge will be given a more prominent role. God Forbid.  

 

My first encounter with the analytical and descriptive powers of Steve Claridge was during the 2004 Copa America. The former lower-league journeyman was working as a co-commentator on Bravo. As I heard him talk over the man sitting next to him, confuse himself and consistently drop clangers, I genuinely considered switching off. I pitied the producer who gave Claridge the gig, whose suffering, I imagined, must have been worse than mine. 

 

Lo and behold that wasn’t the end of Claridge’s career in broadcasting. In a way his punditry has mirrored his playing days: he has battled adversity, worked hard and improved. He still lacks the ability to express himself clearly, but he has developed into a self-righteous naysayer of the game. In spite of this, whoever thought it a good idea to lend his shrill warblings to the BBC’s live radio coverage is a fool. 

 

Whereas Auntie once stood as a bastion of good football coverage, she seems to have taken her eye off the ball of late. Nowhere is this better personified than Match of the Day stalwart, Alan Hansen. The bolshy Scot used to be the programme’s high point, but he has done what he usually laments defenders doing: grown complacent. With the inane Alan Shearer beside him rather than the turgid Mark Lawrenson, Hansen has rested on his laurels. Coupled with Gary Lineker’s staid caricature of Des Lynam, Match of the Day isn’t what it used to be. 

 

Which brings us on to perhaps the most insufferable coverage of all; that of the emissary of media saturation: Sky Sports. The preamble to the Super Dooper Soccer Saturday/Sunday matches involves a procession of ex-pros sitting in the studio; their legs spread-eagle and their tightly fitting trousers silhouetting their genitals. They wax-lyrical on the upcoming games and guffaw at their own witticisms, before Andy Gray reels off his usual succession of stock phrases from the commentary-box.  

 

It is, however, Sky’s B-team on Gillette Soccer Saturday are the lowest ebb of the whole debacle. The show is seemingly a care in the community initiative for ex-footballers. An opportunity to give a motley crew of outcasts and reprobates some purpose after their playing days are over. It’s helping Paul Walsh channel his anger, it’s keeping Paul Merson dry for a couple of hours and Phil Thomson is probably there for his own protection.  

 

Ultimately, the ‘insight’ and ‘analysis’ of ex-footballers is often poor, but it’s undoubtedly more palatable than the hackneyed diatribes of Alan Green or Tim Lovejoy. Also, when we see our former idols put out to pasture in the media we are reminded that although they were once a lot better than us at football, they are considerably worse at both thinking and communicating. This is the small, sad victory I’m forced to recall every time I hear the irksome tones of Steve Claridge.        

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